Making Food Deserts Bloom
By Kari Lydersen Posted on June 23, 2008
In low-income urban, particularly African-American, neighborhoods across the country, you can often go dozens of city blocks without encountering a fresh vegetable or a piece of fruit.
That’s largely because major chain grocery stores have deemed it uneconomical to do business in these neighborhoods. Corner stores, ubiquitous in low-income neighborhoods, stock mostly processed packaged snacks, and smaller independent groceries often have sub-par offerings, many past their peak.
For people living in America’s food deserts, there is generally a high incidence of diet-linked health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
A distance of several miles to a grocery store, which might not seem like a big deal in a more affluent area, becomes a problem for people who don’t have cars or access to quality public transportation, and who may be at risk while making long treks on foot through crime-plagued streets.
“There is a tremendous lack of fresh produce in these neighborhoods,” said Jacquie Berger, executive director of the New York nonprofit group Just Food. “There aren’t many full-service groceries, and even if there are the produce tends not to be great. Everyone goes to the bodegas, with notoriously bad, overpriced produce. You get four peppers wrapped in plastic, and one is rotten.”
Mapping Food Deserts
A study released in April tracking food access in Chicago and its suburbs found that low-income communities lack access to full-service grocery stores, and the situation is getting worse. In the mostly African-American neighborhood of Riverdale on the far south side, a resident would have to travel on average 3.2 miles to reach a major grocery store.
Daniel Block, an associate geography professor at Chicago State University who co-authored the study, says that chains such as Cub Foods, Jewel, and Dominick’s have closed many urban locations in the past two years.
“These companies are financially scrunched. They need to be specific about where they’re opening, and they don’t want to change their model much,” he says.
Block adds that many small independent grocery stores are converting to dollar stores that carry little or no fresh food. An increasing number of small discount grocery stores such as Aldi and Food 4 Less have opened in urban Chicago neighborhoods, offering some fresh produce, but far from an ideal or high-quality selection.
However, Block’s study found that some immigrant communities, particularly Latino enclaves, still had ample access to fresh produce thanks to local ethnic markets and street vendors. The relatively low-income, largely immigrant neighborhoods of Pilsen and Uptown in Chicago boasted fresh produce within only a quarter-mile on average. But a full-service grocery store was still more than a mile away for Pilsen residents.
(This is not true in every city; immigrant neighborhoods in other major urban areas do suffer serious lack of access to fresh food.)
Block noted that even with local produce outlets, residents interviewed in Chicago immigrant communities feel they still suffer from the lack of adequate grocery stores. Partly because of community pride, they want their neighborhood recognized as worthy of mainstream investment. Local stores are also unlikely to stock organic produce, tend to charge higher prices, and generally carry produce that is slightly less fresh than at chain grocery stores with more efficient economies of scale and delivery systems.
A 2004 report in the “Food for Every Child” series by the Food Trust in Philadelphia notes the city has the second-lowest per-capita number of supermarkets nationwide. Based on a 1995 study of 21 metro areas by the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, the report says Philadelphia has 70 too few supermarkets to serve the city’s low-income communities. The Food Trust uses statistical mapping methodology to track supermarket prevalence in relation to income, auto ownership, and other factors. Using 1998 city data on mortality, the study found there were 7,586 diet-related deaths per square mile in the city, including stomach, cardiovascular, and other diseases. The rate of such deaths was notably higher in low-income, supermarket-deprived areas.
In a 2004 survey of more than 10,000 Philadelphia households, the Food Trust found that more than 30 percent of African Americans reported fair- or poor-quality grocery access, compared to 24 percent of Latinos, 15 percent of Asians, and 11 percent of whites. Adults in fair or poor health were twice as likely to report fair or poor access to groceries compared to adults in good health. At that time, about 71,000 Philadelphians reported having a hard time finding fresh produce in their neighborhood, according to the Food Trust. It is not surprising that lower-income residents in the grocery-deprived areas were also significantly more likely to eat takeout or fast food more than three times a week.
CSAs, Urban Gardens, Growing Power, Fighting Worms
Fortunately, a wide and growing number of government- and nonprofit-funded and purely grass-roots projects across the country have coalesced into a movement known as sustainable “food justice” and “food security,” promoting access to fresh, often organic produce in low-income areas and, in many cases, also creating job opportunities and a holistic connection with food production for residents of these communities.
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer at The Washington Post out of the Midwest bureau and author of Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age.
- Growing Power (Milwaukee)
Heifer Project International
Just Food (New York)
- The Food Trust (Philadelphia)
Victory Gardens (San Francisco)
Healthy Corner Stores Network